The Finer Points About Searing

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Searing, or browning, is the result of a complex set of chemical reactions collectively known as the Maillard reaction.  It is important to know the method for searing, because it is a very useful skill to have in the kitchen. To read a tutorial on how to sear something, please click here.

1)  Searing meat, in fact, does not lock in juices, as some people like to think.  The high heat required for searing actually ruptures more cells than gentler cooking methods do, so the food you are searing actually ends up losing more moisture than if you cooked the same food gently.

2)  Searing foods and giving it that golden brown crust is good for flavor.  The Maillard reaction results in deep and complex flavors, which can mean the difference between a delicious steak and a very bland, gray hunk of cow flesh.

3)  Usually, when searing food, browned bits are left on the bottom of the pan.  This stuff is delicious and should be utilized whenever possible by deglazing the pan with a liquid (preferably a flavorful liquid like wine or homemade stock, but water will do in a pinch).  The French call this stuck-on brown stuff le fond, or “the foundation.”

4)  Too much Maillard reaction results in burnt food, so be careful and pay attention.

5)  Searing is different from caramelization, because caramelization involves sugars, whereas the Maillard reaction involves proteins and carbohydrates.  Although the sugars in the food you’re trying to sear may caramelize, this alone is not the only thing involved in searing, or the Maillard reaction.  Some chefs refer to the brown crust on steaks and chops, etc. as caramelization.  This is technically wrong, but you probably shouldn’t be an asshole and point this out to the chef, especially if you work for the guy and want to keep your job and fingers.

6)  Do not overcrowd the pan you are trying to sear in.  Overcrowded pans, or pans with too much food in it, trap moisture and prevents water vapor from escaping as it evaporates in a hot pan.  This results in steaming your food, rather than searing it.

7)  The Maillard reaction occurs at around 230 degrees Fahrenheit and above.  Water can only reach 212 degrees Fahrenheit (the boiling temperature) at sea level.  Thus, to ensure proper browning, make sure the outside surfaces of the food you’re trying to sear is as dry as possible.  Paper towels are cheap.  Use them.

8)  Alternatively, if you choose to salt the food prior to searing (and, in most cases, you should*), there may be a lot of liquid on the surface of the food as a result of the salt pulling out moisture.  Some experts advise that this liquid be patted dry with paper towels as well.  Other experts say that this liquid is full of water-soluble proteins and insist that they will assist in proper searing.  I say leave the liquid on, unless there’s a ton of it.  You should probably leave it on anyway, if you’re planning on making a pan sauce.  I doubt the water-soluble proteins will assist that much in browning, since the water will still need to evaporate before browning can occur, but this may result in more fond on the bottom of the pan.  Yay, sauce!

9)  Properly searing meat is not possible in a conventional microwave oven.  Microwaves act on polar molecules such as water.  The radiation causes these polar molecules to vibrate very very quickly, which creates heat.  Since water is the main polar molecule that gets heated this way in microwaved food, browning is impossible since food in a microwave won’t reach temperatures hot enough to create a browned crust (unless you plan on nuking your food to death, but even then it won’t work very well).

10)  Oil can get much hotter than water and so is a very good conductor of heat from the pan or from the hot air in an oven.  Oil helps to ensure an even brown crust and also provides lubrication so that food does not stick as badly to the pan.  Of course, a little sticking is good, since it results in fond. Additionally, once the proteins have coagulated enough in a piece of meat, the food should more or less auto-release from the pan it is cooking in.  Oil the pan shortly before cooking, or (better yet) rub oil onto the outside of the food you are going to cook.

11)  Foods that have been seared or that have been exposed to high heat for long periods of time (a roasted Thanksgiving turkey, for example), should be allowed to rest so that the juices can settle and redistribute inside the meat before cutting or carving.  Heat excites water molecules and meat that has not had a chance to rest after cooking will leak a lot of its juices if cut or carved too soon.  Be patient!  Aim for 10 minutes for smaller items, such as a steak.  Aim for about half an hour for larger items, like that Turkey or a slowly roasted pork shoulder or Boston butt.

There’s no doubt more to know about searing, but I think I’ll leave it at that.  If I think of anything important to add, or if anyone has any suggestions, I’ll come back and edit this entry.  Other than that, go out and sear something!  Happy browning!

* More delicate foods should not be salted too far in advance to cooking.  For example, soft, white-fleshed, delicate fish may be adversely affected by too much salt too soon.  Additionally, some foods, such as scallops, may be “burned” by the salt and develop an unpleasant appearance and texture on the surface.

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One Response to “The Finer Points About Searing”

  1. […] I’m an omnivore, Goddamnit « Top Chef Season 5 update The Finer Points About Searing […]

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